Madness From Civilization

In The Narcissistic Personality of Our Time, I discussed the trade-off of modernity, which recapped the ideas of A Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch. The belief of modern society, and perhaps even more so in the future, with the rise of techno-utopianism, is the belief that a combination of multiple autophile behaviors will be an adequate substitute for traditional communities and social contracts — that impel the individual to direct their libidinal energy away from the ego.

In the past, when people directed this energy outwards, it grounded them and gave them a sense of humility. In today’s more self-centered world, the individual believes that the community owes them something.

In the past, it grounded people and gave them a sense of humility. Today’s self-centered society believes that it is the community that owes them something.

In the modern world, as Harari points out in Homo-Deus, it is not so much the cult leaders or religious leaders that are worshipped, but the technologists in Silicon Valley that promise immortality, or the other businesses that sell their own spiritual products. Unwittingly, the modern narcissist worships these new forms of religion. They are covered in more detail in Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World.

If you’ve ever been to a yoga studio or a CrossFit class, ever practiced “self-care” with a ten-step Korean beauty routine or a Gwyneth Paltrow-sanctioned juice cleanse, ever written or read Internet fan fiction, ever compared your spiritual outlook to a Dungeons and Dragons classification (“lawful good, chaotic evil”) or your personal temperament to that of a Hogwarts house, ever channeled your sense of cosmic purpose into social justice activism, ever tried to “bio-hack” yourself or used a meditation app like Headspace, you’ve participated in some of these trends…

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. Tara Isabella Burton

One of the interesting observation by Rick Roderick in his lecture on One-Dimensional Man is that society’s rejection of the irrational and embrace of the rational has resulted in a paradoxical outcome. Only a small portion of society is highly rational, while the rest have become increasingly irrational.

Modern rationality has become so advanced that its products have become completely inaccessible to people. One scientist, in the documentary, Technocalyps, remarked that it would take around 50 years for a person to get up to speed with modern mathematics. Science in the modern world is not so different from wizardry to the vast majority of people. Who understands the inner workings of the technological devices that each person takes for granted?

In the end, people must worship something. The self is a poor candidate, since too much self-love can lead to megalomania and delusional ideas (Secondary Narcissism). Self-love does not perform the function of a drug, it does not give people a sense of security. So when people turn their attention on something else to worship, or perhaps someone else, they are in a way, protecting themselves from psychological harm. They are blocking energy from flowing towards the self, they are standing in the way of their own narcissism.

But people cannot choose to worship nothing and maintain a healthy sense of self. At least that is the suggestion behind Freud’s theory of narcissism. And the problem that no choice of worship is not without its problems. In the culture of the therapeutic, the problem is propagated as more people become convinced that the cure to their problems is self-understanding. They debilitate themselves.

Nietzsche, long before the advent of psychotherapy, understood the importance of the religious instinct. That is why he created Zarathustra, a Zoroastrian prophet, who came to preach the doctrine of no divinity, in Biblical style (a parable). After Freud psychoanalyzed away the idea of God, his disciples, Jung and Adler, went on to establish their own pseudo-religious organizations, as detailed in The Triumph of the Therapeutic by Rieff.

Protestantism is, perhaps, the ultimate religion of the printed book. The Remixed religions we’re about to explore are the religions of the Internet.

Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. Tara Isabella Burton

A remixed religion occurs when people choose to blend two or more belief systems with each other, by carefully (or not so carefully) selecting whichever parts of each religion they find convenient. For example, many people have isolated meditation from the practice of Buddhism. Today, meditation is a global phenomenon, and companies are promoting it as a productivity tool. Ironic, since the entire purpose of meditation is detachment from early and material desires.

The internet, with its limitless access to information, burdens the individual with not merely knowing about the fact that so many different points of view exist, but integrating as many points as they can to their own belief system — to have all their bases covered.

Thus, to understand why the modern world has so many strange cults, mixed religions, and new forms of meaning being established each day, we need to look at not only the history of religious belief, but the history of madness and the history of the internet.

Rieff wrote that one of the features of the modern world is that each individual is somehow broken. If they are not being as “effective” as they can be, or capable of “relating to others” well enough, or buying into social fictions willingly, then they are “sick.” The reality may be that they are not docile enough to be considered normal.

In The Myth of Mental Illness, the main point that Szasz makes is that psychological diseases keep changing over time. Szasz recalled that not long ago, there were less than 20 psychological illnesses — then, during his lifetime there were hundreds. It is not that change itself is indicative of foul play — without change, there is no evolution or advancement, but the point is that we have not really discovered new illnesses, as much as we have re-categorized old behaviors. The role of the therapist is essentially to socialize the individual into the normal functions of society.

But this is not so much a criticism as much as it is a widely accepted observation. To the criticism launched by Szasz, the modern psychiatrist would nod in agreement, and happily acknowledge that their objective is to socialize the individual into the normal functions of society. Why do Szasz and Foucault (in Madness and Civilization) see the need to make a criticism that the psychological establishment would happily concede to?

It has something to do with how the mad used to be treated. There was a time when the mad were mobile, where they interacted with society, and people heard them speak. There was a time when it was those who knew too much that went mad — Don Quixote went mad because of too much reading, so his priest burnt a selection of his books to cure him. There was a time when society looked for wisdom by consulting the mad. There was a time when to be mad meant to be unproductive, thus the vagabonds, the idle, and the youth who had squandered the family fortune were labelled as mad. There was a time when the remedies to curing the mad was in throwing cold water at them. But confinement was the most popular tool.

Madness was recognized as non-reason, or the negation of reason — that is, non-being — insofar as it is cut off from external stimuli. In fact, doctors prescribed travel and ocean waves to restore movement, and thus the correct flow of thoughts in the mind. To cure madness, by language, for example, was to follow the madman in their illusion, or to force them to come out of their condition out of necessity (the need to work and survive).

Eventually, the mad were no longer allowed to be mobile and were locked up in prisons to make sure they were productive and not just a drag on society, they were forced to work. Ironically, this had the effect of displacing “normal” people in society from jobs, and then those people were labelled as “mad” and the cycle continued.

Then in the 19th century, it was only the unproductive mad people that were considered “mad” — this marked the beginning of the asylum.

They were forced to work so that they did not violate one of God’s commandments. The work was a way to fix their soul, and consequently, absolve them of guilt. But that was not the only rationale. There was an idea that work was a way to cure man from his suffering. When man escapes the law of labor that nature imposes on him, he seeks a world of anti-nature, and artifice, and his madness becomes only one manifestation of such a world. In describing how he succeeded, by industrious activity in being cured, Bernadin de-Saint Pierre said:

It was to Jean-Jacques Rousseau that I owed my return to health. I had read, in his immortal writings, among other natural truths, that man is made to work, not to meditate. Until that time I had exercised my soul and rested my body; I changed my ways; I exercised my body and rested my soul. I gave up most books; I turned my eyes to the works of nature, which addressed all my senses in a language that neither time nor nations can corrupt. p.104

Madness and Civilization, Foucault

The next stage, psychiatry, is when the analyst takes the role of the priest. The patient, or the madman, confesses to them their sins. In a sense, the madman is like a child while the analyst/therapist is the adult. Merely by virtue of rationality vs non-rationality, the therapist had the upper hand and did not need to use any physical force.

That was Foucault’s contention against Freud, that one did not need to archive mountains of data on a patient to analyze them. it was sufficient to merely be the rational person in the room, and in that sense, you could hold up a mirror to the madman or the patient, and they would be able to see the errors in their thinking for themselves. This is in contrast to Jung, who preferred not to maintain this hierarchical relationship.

There are two points worth thinking about. One, the very definition of madness is dubious, not only because it keeps changing with time to reclassify old modes of behavior, but because there are political and financial incentives to convince people that they are dysfunctional. Second, the therapist has merely filled the void that was previously occupied by the priest, the family, and traditional institutions, and this is the thesis advanced by Rieff and Lasch.

(If you would like an introduction into the history of psychology, see my summary of Ellenberger’s excellent The Discovery of the Unconscious.)

Psychology faces one final limitation: the subject-subject problem. That is, the scientific study of subjective experience requires a subject to be an objective observer of subjective experiences. On the one hand, it is impossible to derive an ought from an is. As Karl Popper pointed out, you cannot falsify psychological ideas. Therefore, as scientific hypotheses, psychological ideas (Adler, Freud, Jung) fail. But that would be the wrong lens to view these ideas. A better approach would be to see the ideas of psychoanalysis as a philosophy, like Epicureanism or Stoicism, no less valuable and important to the human experience.

The problem only arises when a philosophy is expressed as brute fact. In recent years, there has been an accommodation in the West to the benefits of Eastern practices that used to be considered esoteric (yoga, meditation).


In Altered Traits, a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson, we are told about the failure of clinical psychology in trying to cure the problems of the mind. A comparison is made between the Western and Eastern approach.

In the West, clinical psychology tries to fix a specific problem like high anxiety by focusing on that one thing, while Asian psychologies have a wider lens and offer ways to enhance our positive side. Notice that this is akin to the dichotomy posited by Ian McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary.

Essentially, the brain is divided into two ways of thinking (left hemispheric and right hemispheric). This is a metaphorical description and not a description of the location such modes of thinking take place in.

The left hemisphere is sequential, linear, compartmentalizes the world, logical, and analytic. The right hemisphere is holistic, complex, receptive. Each hemisphere knows things that the other hemisphere does not know. The corpus callosum creates cooperation between the hemispheres, by excluding the other at the right time.

A great example given by McGilchrist is to compare the two hemispheres to a technology business consisting of a salesperson and of an engineer. The salesperson forges new relationships and brings in clients, while the engineer builds systems and technologies. The salesperson thinks that the engineer is free loading off of his talent, while the engineer thinks the same of the salesperson.

We can draw a parallel between the Eastern and Western approach in dealing with problems of the mind. The Eastern approach is holistic and right-brained, while the Western approach is linear and left-brained.

Richard, one of the authors of Altered Traits, became interested in consciousness after reading the works of Aldous Huxley, R.D Laing, Martin Buber, and Ram Dass. But these interests were driven underground during his college years in New York University, where professors were staunch behaviorists (followers of B. F. Skinner). They thought that observable behavior was the only way of understanding the mind, while looking inside the mind was a taboo waste of time. They believed that mental life was irrelevant to understanding behavior.

When French poet and Nobel laureate Romain Rolland became a disciple of the Indian saint Sri Ramakrishna near the beginning of the 20th century, he wrote to Freud about the mystical state he experienced. Freud diagnosed it as regression to infancy.

In the 1960’s, psychologists dismissed drug-triggered altered states as artificially induced psychosis.

And yet, as described in Altered Traits, there are tangible, scientifically measurable benefits to meditation.

So who is right?

There are indeed benefits from meditation, but not for everyone.

Dr. Farias, in this article, says:

….in my new study, which reviews over 40 years of the science of meditation and mindfulness-based therapies, suggests that these practices can also lead to negative effects in about 8 per cent of individuals — from increases in anxiety, depression and stress, to unusual experiences like hallucinations.

Concerns about meditation were irrational in the 1960’s, we are told in Altered States. But were these reservations really unfounded?

As early as 1976, Arnold Lazarus, one of the forefathers of cognitive behavioral therapy, raised concerns about transcendental meditation, the mantra-based practice then in vogue. “When used indiscriminately,” he warned, “the procedure can precipitate serious psychiatric problems such as depression, agitation, and even schizophrenic decompensation.” Lazarus had by then treated a number of “agitated, restive” patients whose symptoms seemed to worsen after meditating. He came to believe that the practice, while beneficial for many, was likely harmful to some.

Meditation, contrary to those who market it, is not for relaxation and it is not a convenient way to gain health benefits. It is an ancient practice pursued by those who have committed themselves to a spiritual life.

The Buddhist ascetics who took up meditation in the fifth century bc did not view it as a form of stress relief. “These contemplative practices were invented for monastics who had renounced possessions, social position, wealth, family, comfort, and work,” writes David McMahan, a professor of religious studies at Franklin and Marshall College, in a 2017 book, Meditation, Buddhism, and Science. Monks and nuns sought to transcend the world and its cycles of rebirth and awaken in nirvana, an unfathomable state of equanimity beyond space and time, or at least avoid being reincarnated as a mountain goat or a hungry spirit in the hell realm underground.

So far, we have been to quite a few places, let us revisit them.

This article began with a brief discussion of Freud’s theory of narcissism, and then discussed the cultural critique in The Triumph of the Therapeutic by Rieff (how therapy has filled the place of religion). I then went through a very brief history of the critiques that have been dealt to psychology over the past few decades, not to mention the replication crisis. I moved on to discuss the book Altered Traits, a book written by psychologists, that tries to prove the benefits of meditation (and concludes that benefits do exist for everyone, but that truly profound changes in the brain can only be witnessed in experts (monks) who have had thousands of hours of practice. The authors also showed that the practice that was frowned upon by the psychiatric community in the 1960's.

Finally, I mentioned more recent studies that showed that meditation could be harmful to some people (even fatal in rare cases). All this to make a point, maybe a few points.

We know very little about ourselves, we always have. The attempts to reduce the human mind to something that is rational and predictable has too often been met with failure. Even our descriptions of the mind’s irrationality is not without much contention (Kahneman proves that the mind is irrational, but Gigerenzer shows that our “irrationality” is actually very effective and adaptive in many cases). Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, may have had made great observations, but there are many question marks about his interpretations (as Girard and many other critics of his have demonstrated) and many of his ideas are no longer retained by the psychological community.

Yet there is an enormous amount of credence that is given to the field. Psychology has become a leading authority to answering questions that are spiritual or philosophical in nature. And in the end, we must wonder how a recent science, that began with experiments in magnetism and the occult, and has failed to give much insight into the human mind, has managed to get to such an esteemed position?

Has psychology itself played the grandest psychological trick of all, and duped an entire culture into believing that its failures have never existed?

Originally published at

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